Human rights groups critique Canada’s inquiry into missing and killed indigenous women

Margaret Buist and Jolene Head, Director-General and Director of the Missing Indigenous Women Pre-Inquiry Secretariat. (Credit: Daniel Cima/Flickr)

Canada’s government is about to launch a long-anticipated national inquiry into the deaths and disappearances of hundreds of indigenous women and girls over the last few decades, but a draft of the terms of reference, leaked to the media last week, has already been heavily criticized.

The document failed to direct commissioners to review police and police practices, which a joint statement by various high-profile advocates, including from Amnesty International Canada and the Canadian Feminist Alliance for International Action, says is “critical” to the success of the inquiry. More than 1,200 indigenous women have gone missing or been killed across Canada since 1980, and families have repeatedly questioned whether police did a thorough-enough job investigating the deaths and disappearances.

“In our view, the draft TOR risks a weak National Inquiry that lacks clear authority to delve into some of the most crucial factors in this human rights crisis,” the joint statement said, released last Wednesday. “Our organizations are particularly concerned that the draft TOR provides no explicit mandate to report on, or make recommendations regarding, policing and justice system failures and inadequacies.”

The Terms of Reference document has also been criticized for not directly assigning commissioners to solve specific cases. Rather, it directs the five unnamed commissioners to investigate the systemic causes of violence against indigenous women and girls, as well as institutional policies to respond to that violence. It asks them to recommend “concrete and effective action” the government can take to address systemic causes of violence.

Without delving into any specific cases, many families who lost loved ones will never get a sense of closure or justice. One of these families lost a 22-year-old daughter, Sabrina Polchies from the Elsipogtog First Nation, who moved to Moncton in 2010. According to CBC Canada, her mother, Mary Agnes Polchies, received a distressed phone call from her daughter and heard men swearing in the background before the line went dead.

Polchies called police immediately and multiple times over the next few days, but when her daughter was found dead four days later with a deadly combination of alcohol and prescription medication in her system, federal police quickly ruled out any foul play.

Six years later, members of her family still believe Polchies was murdered and are waiting for closure.

“Mostly what bothers me is there is no justice at all. They dropped it and that was all,” Sabrina’s father, Wilson Polchies, told CBC Canada.

The national investigation comes after a 2014 study by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police found that nearly 1,200 aboriginal women (with estimates closer to 4,000) were killed or went missing between 1980 and 2012. The federal budget has committed $40 million over two years for the inquiry.

Although aboriginal women only account for about 4 percent of Canada’s female population, based on 2012 numbers, they represent nearly one in four female homicide victims in Canada.


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Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Madrid-based reporter for Humanosphere, covering gender equality, indigenous rights and poverty in Latin America and worldwide. Find her on Twitter at @lisanikolau, email or see her latest work at